A Theology of Abortion That Does Not Fit on a Protest Sign

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If you have had an abortion, I honour your journey.
If you believe that abortion should be illegal, I honour your journey.
If you fall somewhere in between, I honour your journey.

Abortion is a hard thing to talk about, but we’re grown ups now, and as Glennon Doyle reminded us, we can do hard things. This is my story. I have not experienced abortion personally; that is not what this story is about. This is the story of how my ideas and beliefs about abortion were formed and how they grew and changed. This is a story about why I believe it is so incredibly important to talk about abortion, especially in these current times.

I’ve written before about my conservative church upbringing. We were evangelicals before I even knew what that word meant. Ours was a faith in black and white, right and wrong. There was a neat divide drawn between people like us and people who were not like us. Everything—every single thing in the world—existed on one side of the line or the other.

The abortion debate in my church was not nuanced or complicated. We were taught that it was 100% wrong, 100% of the time and that was that. We were given enough science to know where babies come from and then they skipped over the part where there was any debate among scientists about where life begins. It was very simple, and very dangerous.

I remember standing on the side of the busiest road in my home town holding a blue sign with white lettering that read “Abortion kills children.” There were hundreds of us stretched as far as the eye could see. I would not hold that sign today, but back then I didn’t question it. And that I think is the biggest part of the problem.

I did not question it.

I was taught, in pretty church words, that the world wanted abortion, so loose women could use it as convenient birth control. That is not true. But back then I did not see the layers of patriarchy under that phrase. I didn’t see how it painted women as wanton nymphomaniacs, or how it subtly suggested that liking sex was a bad thing. I didn’t notice that it was only the women who were blamed for abortion and never the men. I didn’t see that it completely wiped away the myriad reasons why a person might seek out an abortion.

As an adult I know better.

For a huge chunk of my life I accepted the story I was taught about abortion and did not question it. How could there be other sides to such a foundational issue? It simply wasn’t up for debate as far as I was concerned. I had my gospel as I understood it and that was enough.

Until it wasn’t.

A few years ago I interviewed a couple who had lost a son to a rare genetic condition. She spoke about the day she learned her son was “incompatible with life” and the hard, hard process of trying to decide whether to carry the pregnancy or end it. I remember she said that she had never, ever considered abortion up to that point. But hearing what her son was experiencing in utero, knowing he could not live, for the first time in her life, she had to consider it. Would ending his pain now be the one kind thing she could do for him as his mother?

It had never occurred to her before that the issue of abortion could be anything other than simple. But here she was, a good Christian woman, pregnant with a very wanted child, pacing around the gardens at a large hospital in Vancouver, seriously considering it. She described the experience as agony. In time, she and her husband made the painful decision to carry the pregnancy as long as she could, but she has never looked at the issue of abortion the same way again.

I often think about her story, and about an article I read a year ago about another woman who ended a very wanted pregnancy under similar conditions. All of my growing up years the narrative I heard about abortion was that it was a quick fix, a get-out-jail-free card for people who rolled the dice with sex and got caught. I have never encountered that experience of abortion as an adult. I know women who chose to have an abortion, and women who chose not to.  But I have not met anyone on either side of the issue who approached the idea of ending a pregnancy flippantly.

I worry that the church will never be effective in protecting the vulnerable until we stop pretending that the issues are simple. They are not. Even when we believe firmly, whole-heartedly, biblically on one side of the issue or the other, it still is not simple. Our own convictions may seem simple to us, but the issue is deeply complex. We need to dig deeper.

What would Jesus actually do? How would he protect the sanctity of all life? Would he stand on the side of the road with a sign? Would he open his home to a woman with no options? Would he campaign for longer maternity leave? Would he be in favor of better sex ed in schools? Would he work to change the laws to ban abortion altogether? Would he put condom dispensers in high school washrooms?

I think he would start with compassion. There are countless stories in the Bible where Jesus basically pulls up a chair and says, “Tell me your story.” He listened. He got in close. He was endlessly curious about people. He got his hands dirty. And he wept.

I used to be staunchly against abortion. Now I am not so sure. I know that statistics show us when abortion is illegal, more women die. I know that when abortions are harder to get it disproportionately affects the poor and women of colour. I know that it’s not fair for those of us in stable, safe environments to say that just because we would never choose abortion no other woman should ever be able to choose it.

I wish we lived in a world where everyone got pregnant when they were ready, when they were old enough, when they were in a safe place, when they were with someone they truly love. But we don’t. If our goal is to have fewer pregnancies end in abortion then surely it’s just as important to do everything we can to stop unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place, rather than simply go after abortion laws themselves.

We need science-based sex education in schools. We need more women to have access to good health care—for contraceptives, for pre-natal care and for making decisions about the future. We need more countries to have good maternity leave policies and affordable child care options and better legal support for women who struggle to collect child support. We have to let go of this bizarre idea that women who seek out abortions are all the same and have all the same reasons and experiences.

It’s time for the church to tell more than one narrative about abortion. We need, I need, a lot more compassion for people whose stories don’t look like mine. I do not know what the long-term solution will look like. I know that it does not look like forcing an 11-year-old to carry a pregnancy or pretending that abstinence-only sex ed works. I know it’s probably going to involve a lot of uncomfortable conversations. I hope we can have those conversations without eviscerating each other in the comment sections. I hope we can agree that life is precious and also remember that heart cells on their own in a petri dish have a heartbeat, but they are not a life.

I hope we stay curious and open and do our homework. I hope we can love each other on the journey, even while we’re still learning and even while we disagree. I hope I see the day when we can land on a theology of abortion that does not fit on a protest sign.

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Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at clairecolvin.ca.
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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